My paperless(-ish) office with OneNote and NAPS2

Screenshot of NAPS2 application. Two documents have been scanned and are shown side-by-side.
Screenshot of NAPS2, the scan to PDF application I use alongside OneNote

I’ve started using NAPS2 to convert paper documents to PDF to store in Dropbox or Microsoft OneNote as part of my paperless(-ish) office approach to productivity.

Predictions about the paperless office have been circulating for over 40 years now. And yet here I am in 2018 sitting next to a four-drawer filing cabinet containing letters and documents about everything from my house rental and utility bills to health records, university qualifications, and work-related documents.

OneNote

A couple of years ago I decided to try to keep an electronic copy of my most important (or frequently used) documents and after comparing the relative benefits of Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote and Microsoft OneNote, I finally settled on OneNote (with Dropbox as a backup in some cases) and started scanning.

OneNote stores its files in OneDrive, which I wasn’t using for much else—and given that I subscribe to Microsoft Office 365 I have about 1 TB of cloud space* at my disposal.

[* Disclaimer: There is no such thing as the cloud, it’s just someone else’s computer.]

I like OneNote because:

  • I can view the PDF on the page, I don’t have to wait for it to open in Acrobat Reader.
  • The documents synchronise between my desktop PC, laptop, tablet and mobile phone, so I can access them wherever I am and away from home.
  • I can annotate and highlight the document using the draw functionality of OneNote.
  • I can type notes on the same page, which are searchable.
  • OneNote has built-in OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities which means I can right-click the PDF print-out embedded within OneNote and extract editable text from the document to the clipboard to be used elsewhere—that can save a lot of typing.
Viewing a PDF of a scanned MOT test certificate for my previous car

Scanning

I’m fortunate to have an Epson flatbed scanner on my desk. It came bundled with among other things the Epson Copy Utility which allows me to use the scanner with a printer (or PDF writer) much like a photocopier.

But recently I’ve found the Epson Copy Utility to be increasingly unstable. Often, midway through scanning a document the application will crash and tie up the scanner requiring me to either hunt down the processes to cancel in Task Manager or reboot the PC, which is often quicker. Though, to be fair, the application is over 11 years old and is a 32-bit application running on a 64-bit system.

Hunting around for an alternative, I discovered NAPS2—Not Another PDF Scanner 2, which is also an open source project, which I wholeheartedly support. So far, the results have been superb and I haven’t lost a single document yet

For those who understand this sort of thing, NAPS2 supports both WAI and Twain. It allows you to reorder the scanned pages. It will save to PDF or image (it supports multiple formats including bmp, gif, jpeg, png and tiff). It supports built-in OCR. Or you can simply print the document—including send to OneNote straight from NAPS2.

My experiences so far

Having been trying to live a more paperless office experience for over a year now, I can’t see me wanting to give up my filing cabinet anytime soon (there are still some documents that I would want to keep in paper format) but this has certainly enhanced my productivity.

Before I started scanning, I decided on a document structure within OneNote. I store all my documents within the same notebook but in different groups and sections. I try to keep these as consistent as I can with how I have organised my filing cabinet, which helps me locate the hard copy when I need to. And I adapt and extend the structure when it seems sensible for me to do so.

When I started scanning documents to PDF and embedding them within OneNote, I didn’t simply start at the front of my filing cabinet and work my way through. Instead, I prioritised those documents I thought I might need most often. Whenever I am out and realise that document X or Y would be useful in OneNote, I add a task to Todoist to scan it when I get home.

What I should maybe do next is then use this as the basis for determining which documents to recycle or shred from my filing cabinet.

Having my key documents available wherever I am has been invaluable. Hurray for mobile phones, OneNote for Android and 4G network connections.

Overall, while there is a little overhead in sitting scanning documents as soon as they arrive—although many companies like insurance and utility companies now use PDFs via email as their primary documentation—I have found this approach to be entirely worthwhile. It keeps all my documents together, I can access them whenever and wherever I need them and I feel much more organised as a result.

Amazon Kindle 3G – initial impressions

O2 Xda Zest phone sitting on top of an Amazon Kindle 3
O2 Xda Zest phone sitting on top of an Amazon Kindle 3

On Tuesday my Amazon Kindle 3G + Wi-Fi arrived. And there was much rejoicing.

Why I bought a Kindle

For a few years now I’ve wanted an eBook reader to make my growing collection of geeky books in PDF more portable.

I have a laptop, but it’s not terribly practical with its brightly glowing screen and its fan-assisted knee warmer.  And as any reader of Jakob Nielsen will be able to tell you: reading on computer screens is tiring and about 25% slower than reading from paper.

My Psion Series 5mx has a PDF reader but it’s not being developed now and so doesn’t support the latest version of PDF files.  My Windows Mobile phone does support the latest formats, but the screen is so small that it makes reading PDFs cumbersome with all the scrolling that’s required.

So I wanted something in between a laptop and a PDA, that would support PDFs and wouldn’t put too big a dent in my wallet.  The new Amazon Kindle 3G + Wi-Fi seemed to promise all of that, so I pre-ordered one.  It arrived two days ago.

Initial reaction

When I unpacked the Kindle I tried to peel away the cellophane instruction that was telling me what I should do next (plug it in!), until I discovered that it wasn’t a stick-on film it was the screen itself.

Of course! The Kindle doesn’t need power to maintain an image on the screen, it just needs power to change the image.  Genius! and a perfect introduction to the quality of the E Ink technology.

Cover

Close-up of how the Kindle is secured to the leather cover
Close-up of how the Kindle is secured to the leather cover

The first thing I did was fix it into the chocolate brown Kindle leather cover that I also bought.  I decided not to pay £20 extra for the one with the built-in light as I rarely have to read in the dark, what with us having electric lighting in the house and everything.

The Kindle feels great in your hands; the slightly rubberised feel to its casing makes you feel confident that you’re not going to drop it easily.  Once the Kindle is secured into the case it just feels great, like you’re reading a classic, leather-bound book.  It’s a very tactile experience.

First use

I plugged it in, switched it on and very quickly got to grips with the basic functionality: selecting a book and navigating through the pages.

It feels quite intuitive and I love the feel of the qwerty keyboard: the keys are quite rough like very fine sandpaper which I guess makes them easier to use than similar-sized smooth keys on which your fingers might more easily slide off.

Clarity

I can’t compare the Kindle 3 with earlier models to judge whether it does offer “50% better contrast than any other e-reader” or “crisper, darker fonts”.  But what I can say is that it just looks great.  And everyone I’ve shown it to today has commented on both the clarity of the text and how easy it is to read, even when held at strange angles and from a distance.

Connection to PC

Of course, what I really wanted to do was check out how my PDFs would render on the Kindle.

The power cable comprises a USB cable (it looks like USB A to Micro-B) that plugs into a … well, a plug.  Unhook the plug and you have yourself a USB cable.  It took seconds for Windows 7 to recognise the Kindle as an external drive.

Screenshot of Kindle folders on a Windows 7 machine
Screenshot of Kindle folders

The Kindle contains four directories:

  1. \.active-content-data
  2. \audible
  3. \documents
  4. \music

I dragged and dropped about 300 MB of PDF files into the \documents directory, ejected the Kindle from Windows and lo-and-behold! there they were.

Collections

eBooks can be organised into what the Kindle calls collections, which is like organising your files into folders or directories on your PC; books can be assigned to more than one collection. This makes it easier to find your books, and cuts down the clutter on the home screen.

Screenshot of my Kindle home screen
Screenshot of my Kindle home screen

Once organised into collections you can still view a list of all your books by title, author or most recent.

Reading eBooks

While most of my books are in PDF, I have a few eBooks in either .Mobipocket or Amazon’s proprietary .AZW format (which is based on the Mobipocket standard) which allows the text to be resized. There are eight possible sizes ranging from tiny (30 lines per page) to enormous (5 lines per page).

Showing viewing options on the Kindle 3 while reading an eBook
Showing viewing options on the Kindle 3 while reading an eBook

With eBooks the typeface (regular serif, condensed serif or sans-serif), line spacing (small, medium large) and words per line (fewest, fewer, default) can be adjusted, and text-to-speech can be turned on enabling the Kindle to read out loud the text on the page, either through the built-in speakers or via the headphone socket.

I spent about 30-45 minutes sitting reading an eBook the other day and it felt really natural.  It really is the quality of the screen that makes all the difference: it really does look like ink printed on light grey paper.

Navigation through the pages is via the forward and back arrows on both the left- and right-hand side of the Kindle; although once secured into the leather cover left-handed users I imagine would have to bend the cover back on itself (the kind of action that is drilled into you from an early age that you should never do with a paperback), or remove it from the cover altogether … or, I guess, use the buttons on the right-hand side of the Kindle.

Reading PDFs

Thankfully reading PDFs was just as easy as reading standard eBooks.

Of course, the whole point of PDFs is that the author can determine how they look and that they will retain their design regardless of the device they are being viewed on.  This means that the viewing options are reduced to just zoom, screen contrast and screen rotation.

Screenshot of PDF reading options on the Kindle 3
Screenshot of PDF reading options on the Kindle 3

Depending on the size of the text I’ve found that reading some books with the fit-to-screen option and a 90° rotation is best. Depending on the size of the original page, the navigation keys will then shift your view from the top to the bottom of the page before moving on to the next page.  It really is very impressive.

I just wish that there was a keyboard shortcut for rotating the screen.  On the Kindle 1, I’ve read, it is Alt + R, but on the Kindle 3 this inserts a number ‘4’ into the search box.

No support for PDF bookmarks

Here’s my biggest niggle with the Kindle, though, when using it to read PDF documents: it doesn’t appear to have support for PDF bookmarks.  This seems to me to be a huge failing, as it is often the way that I navigate around large PDF documents when viewing them on my PC.

I hope that Amazon address this in a future update.

Crashes

And speaking of failings: my Kindle has crashed about 5 or 6 times since I received it, and it has rebooted itself once.  I’m hoping that the latter was a software update, I’m currently on version 3.0 (515460094).  eBookvine wrote about the freezes and crashes yesterday.  Mine have happened while browsing the Web and viewing long, complicated PDF documents.

[Update: I upgraded to the latest OS and that solved the crash problem.]

I do wish manufacturers would include instructions on how to soft- and hard-reset their devices. On the Kindle 3 you hold in the power switch for 7 seconds to reboot it, and for 15 seconds to reboot (soft reset) it.

For a hard reset you need to hold the power switch for 20 seconds, release it and then hold the Home button while the Kindle is rebooting.  A screen appears asking you to type “RESET” into an input box which starts the factory reset.

It’s inconvenient, but it’s not enough to put me off using it.

Shortcut keys

A few shortcut keys I’ve found useful:

  • Alt + Shift + G
    Takes a screenshot (think of ‘g’ for ‘grab screenshot’)
  • Alt + Shift + M
    Play Minesweeper (press G within the game to play GoMoku)
  • Alt + Home
    Open the Amazon Kindle Store
  • Alt + Q, Alt + W, Alt + E, etc.
    Pressing Alt and the top row of keys will produce numbers 1-9 and then 0.
  • Alt + G
    Screen refresh
  • Alt + B
    While reading a book you can toggle user-created bookmarks
  • Menu
    Pressing Menu on the Home screen will show you both the time and available memory.